The Author’s Corner with Kenneth Noe

Kenneth Noe is Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. This interview is based on his new book, The Howling Storm: Weather, Climate, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Howling Storm?

KN: Growing up in the Virginia mountains, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on our farm. Weather forecasts were vital, as we had to know if it was time to get the animals in the barn before a snow storm, or if we needed to bale newly-mown hay and store it in the loft before rain set in. Once I planted a field of corn only to watch it die in a drought. So I grew up in a household where weather was central. Yet I never really made the connection between weather and the Civil War until years later when I agreed to write a history of the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky. Weather—in this case a devastating late summer droughtsoon became as important a character as Braxton Bragg. Soldiers arrived at the field dehydrated and sick from drinking mud and bacterial puddles, and the fighting itself began over possession of a spring. Working on that book left me attuned to other moments in the war that were shaped by weather, such as the flooding that characterized Fort Henry, Shiloh, and the Peninsula Campaign earlier in 1862. More and more I included information about weather when I taught, and I told my students for years that “someone needs to write a book about Civil War weather.” When no one did, I abruptly decided one morning a decade ago to give it a try myself.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Howling Storm?

KN: We will not fully understand the Civil War—on the battlefield or on the home frontuntil we take the war back outside and immerse it in wartime weather and the physical environment. Those weather conditions generally favored a Union cause more industrially and intellectually able to cope with it while undermining Confederate agriculture and arms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Howling Storm?

KN: I’ve read about the Civil War since I was a boy, and I’ve studied it professionally for thirty-five years. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Yet researching and writing this book has forever altered how I understand the war. I never knew that it took place in an unusual weather environment, for one thing, shaped by both the El Niño-Southern Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation. Heavy late winter rains and summer droughts in the Confederacy in 1862 and 1863, as well as in Virginia in 1864, created serious food shortages that forced the government in Richmond to prioritize feeding soldiers or civilians. Civil War historians talk all the time about the internal issues that conceivably doomed the Confederacy without understanding that the foundation of all those divisive policies such as impressment and the tax-in-kind are to be found in bad weather and stunted crops. At the same time, northern agriculture faced problems after 1862 due to early frosts in 1863 and drought that year as well as in 1864. Good or bad weather played major roles in the outcomes of battles and campaigns, more than I ever grasped. Once I added weather to the equation, I began to alter my opinions of the leaders too. Abraham Lincoln was a magisterial president in so many ways, but he also could be the prototype of the worst kind of snarky armchair general, unable or unwilling to grasp what it took to move 100,000 men through muddy red clay. And I also marveled at the suffering that common soldiers endured. We think about them dying in battle or in hospitals, but not regularly alongside roads due to heat exhaustion, drowning in floods, freezing to death on picket, or being struck by lightning. I hope that taking the war back outside into the environment, away from our air conditioners and the tired clichés we grew up with, will have the same effect on readers.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KN: My grandfather was a great storyteller, and history was always my favorite class in school, right through college. And growing up in Virginia, it was impossible to ignore the Civil War. When I was five, for example, we all went to the Manassas battlefield and my father illegally hoisted me on top of the Stonewall Jackson statue. To be honest, though, I got pretty tired of the war. I gravitated toward European history in college, and my MA thesis actually is about the Irish Rebellion of 1916. But during the year after I graduated, as I tried to find a job and ended up cutting timber on the farm, I started thinking about the history of our land, and of my home town. Then I ran across a paperback copy of Bruce Catton’s This Hallowed Ground, and there I was, intellectually back in Southwest Virginia in the nineteenth century. Eventually that led me back to grad school.

JF: What is your next project?

KN: In the short term, surviving a year of Zoom teaching. After that? Ten years of working on The Howling Storm—which turned into quite a thick book—and I should be done with Civil War weather. Yet I keep musing about issues that I had to leave out due to length, such as the wartime experience in coastal forts, where weather often was the main foe. I’m also an Appalachian scholar, and I also have an unfinished, long-term project on the identity of Appalachian Civil War bushwhackers that a few folks really want to me to finish finally once I can get back to Washington.

JF: Thanks, Kenneth!

The Author’s Corner with Sam White

51eyPpHtiAL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sam White is associate professor of History at The Ohio State University. This interview is based on his new book, A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write A Cold Welcome?

SW: About seven years ago, I finished a book about climate and crisis in the Middle East—The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. Researching that book had meant a lot of time away from family reading through difficult records in archives in Turkey and Europe, and so this time I wanted to work on something closer to home. Colonial American history also attracted me because, while its narrative may seem familiar, a closer look reveals that there is always so much more going on underneath the surface and more ways to find it out.  By bringing in new perspectives from ongoing historical, archaeological, and scientific research, I could tell a story much more compelling than the one I had learned in school—and much more relevant to the present day.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of A Cold Welcome?

SW: In A Cold Welcome, I show how the first European explorers and settlers came to North America unprepared for the continent’s stronger seasons and the extreme weather characteristic of the Little Ice Age. Thanks to new research, we can understand how those challenges shaped colonial history in ways both subtle and profound.

JF: Why do we need to read A Cold Welcome?

SW: First, these early colonial ventures make for fascinating stories. I wrote A Cold Welcome to be a book that anyone could read and enjoy. Second, the rapid climatic and environmental change of our own times means that we need to rethink the ways we look at the past as well. We have new climate data that can give us remarkable new insights into historical events. Moreover, I believe there are lessons in our history as we confront global warming, and these lessons are not as simple or straightforward as we might imagine. 

JF:  When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

SW: That’s a long story—and even with the book out, I’m still not sure I’d call myself an American historian. To me, A Cold Welcome is not so much a story about America as a story about the confusion of people from one continent encountering a new continent with different climates and environments. It was that historical experience—and its parallels to our experience of rapid environmental change—that concerned me most as I wrote this book.

JF: What is your next project?

SW: At the moment, I’m mostly working with historical climatologists on technical issues of how we can combine natural records (such as tree rings) with man-made records (such as weather diaries) in order to better reconstruct historical climate variability and its impacts. I’m the lead editor of a big textbook on that subject, The Handbook of Climate History, which is coming out in early 2018. Beyond that, I’d like to write a book about disasters and migration to the United States from colonial times to the 20th century.

JF: Thanks, Sam!

Who Cares About the Weather?

eacac-fithian2bbookYesterday I read Sarah Grossman‘s interesting post at Process blog about the Smithsonian Meteorological Project (1849-1870).  According to Grossman, the project “was the first weather data collection effort in the United States that brought together a national coalition of volunteer observers based around the pursuit of citizen science.”

Learn more here.

Grossman’s piece reminded me of what I said about the weather in my first book.  While I was working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I had to make a decision about what to do with the many, many references to the weather in Fithian’s diaries.  Anyone who reads early American diaries knows that it was a common practice to say something about the weather at the beginning of each entry.   Sometimes a reference to the weather (“clear” or “cold”) is the only thing mentioned in a given diary entry.

One option was to just ignore these references and treat them as unimportant trivia.  But the more I read the diary the more I became convinced that I could not do this.  Fithian’s references to the weather told me something about his world and the way understood his place within it.

This is what eventually made it into the book:

As Philip moved through the agricultural seasons his thoughts were often preoccupied with the weather.  This was yet another sign of his intimate knowledge of the Cohansey landscape he called home.  It is common for people to begin their farm diaries with references to current weather conditions.  It is even more common for historians who study diaries to ignore these references, skimming over such apparently unimportant jottings on their way to the “real lives” of their subjects.  This is unfortunate for it misses a vital dimension of what actually defined “real life” in places such as eighteenth-century Cohansey.  Philip obsessed about the weather.  He did not start his journal entries with notes on the weather because such remarks represented proper form or provided an adequate preamble to the day’s more important events.  Philip wrote about the weather because his family and neighbors were at its mercy: “We know not what a Day may bring forth.”  The weather, more than anything else, provides our best insight into the limits of an eighteenth-century agricultural life.  No degree of human initiative could tame it.  Few technological improvements could ease the anxiety that it brought to farmers.

When winter refused to yield to spring, the cold weather could lay waste to the Fithian’s orchard.  Philip described consecutive days of frost in late April 1766 and thought they would certainly “kill all our peaches.”  The summer’s tempests “of rain, wind and thunder,” arriving to Cohansey from the southwest, wreaked havoc on the Fithian’s fields, “blowing down the Flax, Wheat, & Corn very much.”  At other times the rain inundated the fields to such an extent that Philip was able to “track an Ox or a Cow” across them.  Cohansey farmers never watched the weather more closely than during the harvest season.  Philip often devoted an entire journal entry to an hour-by-hour chronicling of a particular day’s weather patterns: ‘cloudy this morning”; about nine or ten o’clock it broke away so that the sun shone”; about noon it rained again in showers”; at 3’oclock there came a thunder gust from the west, and rained excessively hard”; a while in the evening it cleared very pleasant.”  The unpredictable weather during the 1766 harvest season brought great anxiety to Cohansey farmers.  When the rains came as consistently as they did during this particular summer, the Fithians were given only a small window of time to harvest their crops.  Philip had never seen Cohansey farmers so apprehensive.  “From this time to next Wednesday,” he wrote, “will be the most hurrying and engaging time for harvest Men that perhaps ever was known; on account of the later rains.”

While these concerns were certainly real, they were made less frightening by the power of the Presbyterian God.  During times like the summer of 1766, Philip placed his hope for a successful harvest in the hands of a God who knew what was best for the farmers of Cohansey and worked all things together for the good of those who loved Him.  During times of uncertainty Philip did not turn to superstitions or the wisdom of man-made almanacs but instead did his best to rest in God’s care for his family.  In 1766 the God who controlled the weather looked favorably on the people of Cohansey.  “When the descending rains seemed to threaten us with entire desolation,” Philip reflected, “God is pleased to withhold the Showers.”  Though God could have chosen not to save the Cohansey harvest, this time around He elected to answer the prayers of His people.  The only response was thankfulness, a virtue that was not lost on any of God’s creation in Cohansey.  Even the “beasts & birds,” Philip proclaimed with appreciation, “express a sense of their joy and gratitude, for the plentiful provision, by their chearfulness and merryment.”

At other times, however, unfavorable weather patterns could be interpreted as signs of God’s judgment.  In the summer of 1769 Coahsney suffered through a particularly difficult drought…

If you have read this far, you can find out what happened on p.31. 🙂

Scenes from Denver

There are a lot of historians in Denver this weekend.  There is also a lot of snow and ice.  I asked those in attendance at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association to send along some photos of Denver’s frozen tundra.

Ian Petrie took me up on the offer.  He writes: “Fortunately it’s a short trip from the Sheraton to the Convention Center:” 🙂

ice

Send your pics along and we will try to get them up here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Roger Williams in the Winter Woods

After he was banished from Massachusetts Bay in January 1636, Roger Williams was supposed to be escorted by armed guards to a ship that would take him back to England.  Ironically, John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, warned him that the soldiers were on their way to take him to ship. Williams heeded Winthrop’s warning and escaped into the New England woods.

Over at The Beehive, Dan Hinchen reminds us of William’s difficult journey.  Here is a taste of his post:

Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. “He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows.”
“But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford.” A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.
That Roger Williams endured his trek from Salem to Narragansett Bay is no doubt a testament to his personal relationships with the native peoples and their willingness to give him shelter. Yet, “There was no comfort in this shelter. For fourteen weeks he did ‘not know what Bread or Bed did meane.'”

God and the Weather

During the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History this past weekend I got the chance to hear T.J. Tomlin, University of Northern Colorado history professor and shedworker extraordinaire, present a paper on his current book project on almanacs and popular religion in eighteenth-century America.  The paper was entitled “Popular Culture and Religious Authority in Early America.”

While I was listening to T.J. deliver his talk, I sent off the following tweet: @johnfea1

After listening to TJ Tomlin’s talk on almanacs in the 18th c., I think we need a good book on weather and religion in early America. 

Well, lo and behold, it looks as if someone is already working on this topic.  “The Beehive,” the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society, reports on the work of Lauri Coleman, a graduate student at the College of William and Mary.  Here is a taste:

On Wednesday, 3 October, research fellow Lauri Coleman from The College of William and Mary, gave her brown-bag lunch talk, “ ‘Some are Weatherwise, Some are Otherwise’: Popular Almanacs and Weather Cosmology in Mid-eighteenth Century America.” Coleman’s dissertation research explores how mid eighteenth-century New Englanders, from the 1740s to the 1780s,  experienced and made sense of the weather generally and natural disasters such as draughts and earthquakes in particular. New Englanders during this period experienced the weather in two distinct yet interconnected ways: “providentially” (as a sign of God intervening in human affairs) and through the discourse of natural philosophy, scientific observation through which divine laws might be discerned. Coleman argues that these two frameworks for understanding weather – one through which God is understood to act disruptively and violently, the other through which God is seen to act benevolently and in an orderly fashion – exist together in collective consciousness throughout the period.  In the face of natural disasters, these two interpretations were often pitted against one another in public discussion (in newspapers and sermons, for example) as citizens attempted to make sense of the event.

Sounds like a great project.  Maybe Lauri and T.J. can get together for a panel on almanacs at the next major historical conference. I would attend that session.

The Weather Channel: Where "Talking About the Weather" Meets the End of the World

This morning my friend and fellow historian Amy Bass called my attention to the apocalyptic rumblings in the comments section of this article on The Weather Channel website.

Frankly, I can’t tell whether these commentators are kidding or are indulging in the “last days” mania made popular of late by Harold Camping and the folks at Family Radio.  You may recall that Camping has predicted that the rapture will take place this Saturday, May 21, 2011.

Here are some of my favorite comments:

  • Earth quakes, floods, famines, wars and rumors of wars but these are only the beginning signs of the end times. The earth itself is rebelling against the damaging activities of mankind on its entire surface.
  •  The world has been going through every type of weather for millions of yrs. Ice age and more. Now God is going to end the time of man. The weather has changed the formation of land, for millions of yrs. So you bible folk kiss my butt. By posting so much bible crap means you have no faith , your scared and you should be. Life is ride enjoy it or die. Sorry.
  •  I can’t tell if the people commenting on this are serious or just trolling. The second it rains everybody thinks we’re all going to die…you know its been raining since the dawn of time right? If you’re so confident the word is going to end, quit your job and spend time with your friends and family ;).
  •  NY sees this kind of weather every spring so all the people in the world need 2 just grow up and stop acting like every bad thing that happens this week is due 2 the world ending..If u want to die so bad, ok then but dont make others scared along the way.
  •  God Promised He will never destroy the Earth with Floods again! Could Be Fire and Brimstone, though.
  •  Climate has been changing since the earth developed an atmosphere. It is not a portent of doom. Last Spring was gorgeous. The Spring before, not so much. People have been predicting the end of the world since they started walking upright. It’s still here and it will still be here on December 22, 2012.

As Amy wrote on her Facebook page: “Seriously, why does a weather website have a comments section?”  This takes talking about the weather to an entire new level.

The Winter of 1717

Jill Lepore writes about the “horrid snow” that hit New England in 1717.  Here is a taste:

This winter, this is nothing. Over nine days in 1717, the Northeast endured what was ever after known as “the great snow.” At the end of February came what first looked to be beastly (“a great storm”) but what, after what followed, appeared no more than a measly, beggarly storm (“stiddy rain & snow”). The real dumping started a few days later. “4 foot deep in ye woods on a Level,” one farmer reported from New London. Another and still more fearsome storm arrived the next day. In a letter to a friend, Cotton Mather called this one “an horrid snow”: “People, for some hours, could not pass from one side of a street unto another.” In his diary, Mather enthused that about “as mighty a snow as perhaps has been known in memory of man.” In Connecticut, the drifts got as high as sixteen feet. On Long Island, eleven hundred sheep were buried beneath a blanket of white. Some cows, blinded by snow and ice, wandered into the ocean and drowned; more died in fields and, weeks later, when the snow finally melted, they were found, “standing dead on their legs, as if they had been alive.” In New Hampshire, you had to climb out of your house from a second-story window. “Not fit for man nor beast.” No horse could brave it. Nor any ships. “No vessels are arrived this week,” the Boston News-Letter reported. Rivers were frozen in Philadelphia. You could try snowshoes. In Boston, people walked around on stilts. From Rhode Island came this word: “Such a violent storm of deep snow as has been here of late, was never known before, by the Oldest Livers.”

Read the rest here.